When that little light goes off in your car, you know it’s time for an oil change. Unfortunately, your body doesn’t have indicator lights, and its “maintenance” requests may be a late stage cry for help. To ensure that you age better than your car, there are two things to keep in mind: make healthy lifestyle choices and undergo the screening measures recommended by your doctor.
Heart disease, cancer and diabetes are some of the most formidable causes of illness in Americans. Routine screening tests can uncover early risk factors and signs of these disease, allowing interventions and lifestyle changes to play a key role in prevention. In addition, since severe respiratory infections such as influenza and pneumonia can cause chronic conditions to tailspin, immunizations are a key component of maintaining health. Below you’ll find an overview of the preventive checkpoints that are recommended across every stage of adulthood.
Screenings help to uncover health irregularities before they escalate into serious issues. That’s why at your doctor’s office you are generally greeted by a scale and a blood pressure cuff. These simple measures tell us whether there are any red flags we need to address. High blood pressure is a silent risk factor for cardiovascular and kidney disease, while elevated weight ties into a multitude of health risks including diabetes and various cancers.
Blood tests are an important measure of your current health and risk factors. For example, it is recommended to have your screening cholesterol checked every 5 years. Excess LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol can lead to a build-up of plaque in the arteries, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Monitoring cholesterol can help determine if you need to make lifestyle changes or start a regimen of medication to reduce your risk.
Bloodwork also includes a screening test for type 2 diabetes. If you are diagnosed with a predisposition to diabetes, your doctor can engage you in an intensive plan to stop this progression and forestall the complications of diabetes.
If you were born between 1945 to 1965, it is also recommended that you undergo a one-time screening for Hepatitis C. People born during these years are five times more likely than other adults to be infected with Hepatitis C, which is a leading cause of liver cancer.
Cancers that are caught early are often easier to contain and treat. For women over the age of 21, Pap smears every three to five years – and human papilloma virus testing after age 30 – screens for the presence or risk of cervical cancer. Mortality from cervical cancer was once a leading cause of cancer death in American women, but it has dramatically declined thanks in large part to routine screenings. There is also emerging protection from the HPV vaccine, which is recommended for females through age 26 and for males through age 21, or up to age 26 if certain risk factors are present.
Breast cancer is the leading cancer in women, affecting 1 in 8 women in the US. Mammograms starting at age 40 to 50 dramatically decrease the risk of death due to breast cancer.
Colon cancer screening is recommended at age 50, and the American Cancer Society issued a recent recommendation in 2018 to lower the age to 45, due to a steep rise in the incidence of colon cancer in young people. While colonoscopy is the gold standard test, there are now reliable non-invasive alternatives that I hope will encourage people to undergo screening. These include virtual colonoscopy by a CT scan every 5 years, and a stool test for genetic markers of colon cancer every 3 years.
Men ages 50-70 should talk to their doctors about prostate cancer screening with a blood test called PSA, to decide if it is appropriate for them.
In addition, depending on a person’s smoking history, an annual CT scan of the lungs may be recommended to screen for lung cancer between the ages of 55-80.
Immunizations are one of the most effective tools of prevention. In addition to the HPV vaccine discussed above, I recommend annual flu shots, tetanus every 10 years with a one-time pertussis booster, a shingles vaccine after age 50, and pneumonia vaccine for people over the age of 65. These can all lower the risk of debilitating or even deadly complications from their respective diseases.
After the age of 65, osteoporosis or severe bone loss, poses a major health hazard. Specifically, hip fractures can lead to loss of function and increased mortality. For this reason, it is crucial to screen with a bone density exam and treat osteoporosis if it is uncovered. There are many new drug therapies to preserve bone mass. Women are at increased risk due to smaller bones than men, and should be screened starting at age of 65. While menopause is the most widely recognized risk factor, men over 70, especially those with certain risk factors such as heavy drinking or family history, may also be at high risk and should be screened.
Depending on your personal health, family history and other risk factors, your doctor might recommend interventions in addition to the ones described, amounting to “an ounce of prevention” and hopefully “a pound of cure!” Screening tests go a long way toward both staving off illnesses and catching them at early stages. So, when it’s time for your annual check-up, don’t put it off – consider it your body’s version of an indicator light, helping you to stay on the road to health and wellbeing.